essay

Last-minute Essays: Should you REALLY be pulling an all-nighter?

In the early days of TheUniversityBlog, I wrote a popular piece about pulling all-nighters and writing essays at the last possible minute. And I wasn’t very complimentary about the process.

To see my friends in a fiddle and my peers in a panic was frustrating, because some of them clearly didn’t respond well to this regular ritual.

The one time I didn’t focus enough until it was too late…was my dissertation. Yes, I know, it annoyed me at the time too. Even worse, I’d been enjoying the research and writing at first and then simply stopped doing enough to make the project as scholarly (and awesome) as I could have done. Sucked to be me. ūüėČ

So I knew that the last-minute wasn’t for me. By all means get close, but never get TOO close.

But can the all-nighter essay work for some students? Is it really the best way to get the right words flowing?

Rachel Toor, an assistant professor of creative writing, says this:

“What I’ve learned about writing and intellectual work is that there’s no right way to get things done, no ritual or routine that is effective unless it’s effective for you…If the products are coming out in ways that you’re not happy with, by all means, try to make a change in your work style. But…if you need the guillotine hanging over you to get that paper done, let it dangle. There’s no “right” way.”

My personal preference is to use the time given and aim to finish with time to spare if necessary. More often than not, it’s not necessary. I’ll set my own deadline in advance of the actual requirement, so I’m not tempted to run over for some reason.

I do it this way because I prefer to work when it suits me, often in small doses. It depends what I’m working on, but I generally feel comfortable, so see no reason to change.

And that’s the big deal. I see no reason to change.

Just as Rachel Toor explains, pulling an all-nighter is fine if that’s what makes you tick.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that it’s not what makes many last-minuters tick. It’s just what they’ve got used to.

I recommend you to do a little experiment to find out whether or not there’s another way for you. A better way. Take the time to work on a few assignments earlier than usual. Mix things up and see what happens when you spend more time on an essay.

If the slow approach doesn’t work for you, I have another thought. Pull an all-nighter and finish your assignment the way you normally would. But do it a week or two before the real deadline. Treat it seriously and do it as if there will be no more time left after this night. That may be hard to believe, but give it a go.

Because once you’ve got your last-minute attempt, you’ll still have time to revisit it in a couple of days and see if you truly think it’s the best darn paper you could possibly hand in.

Make an effort to explore new ways, rather than doing it once and not bothering again. Toor suggests three months of working differently, but you may be comfortable with something else. Just so long as you take it seriously, otherwise it’s not worth trying in the first place.

After that, if you’re still not convinced, maybe the all-nighter approach is the best way for you after all. The stress, the adrenalin, the pressure…I doubt it works for all the people that experience it, but a few will still find it’s the only way to greatness. In Toor’s words:

“See if it makes your life better. If it doesn’t, then I would say there isn’t a problem. Accept that you are a last-minute person and realize this: Writing is hard, no matter when you do it. Thinking that there’s a better, easier way is just silly.”

The difference will be that you tried and you understood. For others, the difference will be that they tried and they realised the wonders of a somewhat calmer approach. What works for you?

No matter which direction you take, at least you can now be certain!

Are you asking enough questions?

Last week, I talked about understanding questions as a whole and then breaking them down into parts. Both stages are in order for you to get as much meaning from a question as possible.

Questions are important. You need to understand questions, answer questions, and ask questions.

photo by e-magic
photo by e-magic

Assignments go beyond asking how much information you can remember on a topic. Assignment questions also require you to:

  • create an argument;
  • weigh up different views;
  • provide examples and workings, as opposed to regurgitations;
  • demonstrate understanding of the topics under discussion.

It’s easy to get stuck on key topic words that you have a lot of knowledge on. But dig deeper and you’ll notice more to the question. The closer you come to answering the question clearly, deeply, and effectively, the more likely your grade (and enjoyment!) will benefit.

Look for:

  • What’s being asked of you – Does the question ask you to discuss, compare, analyse, argue, evaluate…? The question is probably worded so that you should talk about what you know, but relate to why that’s the case and explain how it could be different or why people have different theories on the matter.
  • Specific focus points – Some questions can be vague, but many ask you to concentrate on a particular feature to base your answer on. You may also notice the question is guiding you to frame your answer in a certain context, such as a single culture, time period, object, opinion, text, and so on.
  • Leading words and phrases – For example, you may be asked to analyse the benefits of something. This is not an invitation to lavish praise upon the subject. To analyse the benefits means to weigh up, to argue whether they really are benefits, and to discuss alternatives. You aren’t being asked a trick question, but you do need to show awareness that there is more than one side to any story. You are welcome to have an opinion on the matter, so long as you explain why you have reached that conclusion and show why you don’t share the same enthusiasm for the alternatives. You’re not stating right/wrong, yes/no, good/bad answers. Instead, you’re reaching a conclusion after exploring the topic.

You also need to ask a lot of questions. Unanswered questions, questions that arise from your study, and questioning assumptions.

Even after you’ve written up a good draft of an essay and you’re happy with it, read through the draft again. Ask yourself — and try to answer — these 15 questions throughout your draft:

  1. How did I come to say that?
  2. Have I backed this up?
  3. Can I say this any clearer?
  4. Does this point follow on?
  5. Should I give more detail here?
  6. Does this assume something I haven’t mentioned?
  7. Does this need referencing?
  8. Will a relevant quotation and/or summary help before I move on?
  9. Is this relevant to the question/title?
  10. Could my main point be made more prominently?
  11. Am I making sense here?
  12. Am I being critical or opinionated?
  13. Does this require an example or demonstration?
  14. Has there been a more recent development?
  15. Is something missing?

These questions are simple enough to make you think, and challenging enough to make you respond. If you’re not asking these questions about your writing, answer this question: Why not?

To work or not to work?

I was reading an essay entitled “Students’ perceptions of the effects of term-time paid employment” and it got me wondering how university life in the UK has changed in recent years with a greater number of students now undertaking part-time work of around 15 hours per week.

I didn’t take a job when I was at uni.¬† It meant I had to budget hard and consider purchases carefully at every step, but it left me with the time to do whatever I wanted.¬† It was never my intention to work and I did everything to keep out of the employment game throughout my degree.

That said, I did get paid to be a Senior Student on campus.  In the process, the uni paid for about 75% of my accommodation, so I guess you could call that a type of employment.

It pays the bills... (£20, photo by woodsy)

The essay got me thinking,¬†to what extent is someone better or worse off if they have a job, comapred to one who doesn’t?

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